By Abbey Nickel, Purdue University
The COVID-19 pandemic is creating emotional stress and anxiety for humans – but chances are, their furry companions are likely feeling the same way.
Dr. Niwako Ogata, an associate professor of veterinary behavior medicine in Purdue University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, says pets could be feeling secondhand anxiety from their owners who are coping with lifestyle changes caused by the pandemic. People’s disruption in routines and more time at home can also induce anxiety in animals, especially if they have underlying anxiety issues.
“It’s important to understand that animals are not good at coping with uncertainty in general,” Ogata says. “Right now, humans are facing more uncertainty than ever, and our own situations are constantly changing, which can be confusing to our pets. They don’t watch the news or consume information like we do, and they can see is how stressed out we are; it can be very confusing for them.”
Ogata researches anxiety disorders in pets and sees patients in Purdue’s Animal Behavior Clinic. During the pandemic, Ogata says anxiety in pets can be categorized into three different areas:
Social tension. With more people working from home, that means pets are getting more attention than ever – which isn’t always a good thing. With more time at home, tension can form between humans and their pets and, in multi-animal households, pets vs. other pets.
“We’re seeing more cases of animals showing aggression because they’re competing for attention or they’re getting too much attention,” she says. “The most important thing to do is to keep to a routine and avoid disrupting that routine. Work in a room away from your pets if it is your office hours and avoid giving them extra attention even if you’re at home.”
The size of the environment also is a factor. For example, Ogata says, smaller apartments can exacerbate social tension.
And as people start participating in social gatherings again, Ogata says it’s easy for pets to become overwhelmed – especially if they’ve been isolated for the last couple of months. Ogata recommends providing safe, quiet rooms for pets to retreat to and letting them gradually interact with more people to avoid overwhelming them.
Separation related behaviors. For animals that have existing anxiety disorders, having their owners work from home is comforting. But as people start returning to work, Ogata says pets might have a hard time coping.
“For animals with existing anxiety, having their humans work from home is what they’ve always wanted,” Ogata says. “But now as more people start making plans to go back to work, it can be really triggering for these pets. Making that jump from being home all of the time to being gone for eight or more hours at a time is really hard on them.”
Ogata recommends making arrangements to gradually transition back to a full work day, if possible. That might include leaving the house for a few hours during the day in the days leading up to going back to work and taking a lunch break in the middle of the day to check on their pets at home. If slowly transitioning to a new schedule isn’t possible, Ogata says it’s important to know that some animals might need veterinarian-prescribed anxiety medication.
Seasonal triggers. Summer can be a difficult season for animals with existing anxiety disorders, but combined with the angst caused by the pandemic, this summer might be especially difficult, Ogata says.
“Thunderstorms and fireworks are huge noise-related triggers for animals with anxiety,” she says. “Adding that on top of existing stress is going to be overwhelming for some pets.”
Ogata says creating a “safe space” for animals to hide during storms or Independence Day celebrations is helpful – especially if it’s in a basement or a bedroom. Background noise such as music also is helpful. In some cases, owners can look into purchasing non-pharmaceutical approaches such as a wrap-around vest that can calm dogs, anti-anxiety supplements or pheromone products, or ask their veterinarian about anti-anxiety medication options.
Ogata says it’s also important to note that this summer, animals could be affected by all three of these scenarios. She advises pet owners to keep an eye on their pets and consult their veterinarian/veterinary behaviorist when necessary.
“Anxiety is anticipating future dangers from an unknown thing,” Ogata says. “And right now, there are a lot of unknowns, and our own personal anxiety is escalating quite a bit. It’s hard for our pets to not be directly impacted by that.”